Surviving in the Premier League is often considered a harder proposition than being successful in it. With the gap growing between the top six and the rest, the fight to remain off the bottom three at the end of the season has become more competitive than ever before. This season has been a great example of this with eight points separating eighteenth placed Southampton and tenth placed Bournemouth with only a handful of games left to go. Whilst Bournemouth (and Watford in eleventh) are unlikely to be dragged into this dog fight given that they are four points away from the magical 40 points safety mark, nine clubs are still entrenched in the battle for survival. There is a lot to play for given the financial rewards in play for staying in the division (each club earns around £40 million from the Premier Leagues lucrative TV deals).
For the two clubs below Southampton – Stoke in nineteenth and West Bromwich Albion in twentieth surviving the drop is looking increasingly less likely each passing week. Stoke’s latest defeat to Everton; a must win game based on their remaining fixtures was a heavy blow for the club. New boss Paul Lambert, parachuted in 10 weeks ago to replace Mark Hughes has no intention of giving up but it will surely take a miracle for them to stay up now. Three points adrift of safety in seventeenth having played an extra game than West Ham who occupy that spot, Stoke are in desperate need of a run of form in order to get them out of trouble. With only six wins all season and a goals against tally which is double their goals scored (58 vs 29), Stoke quite simply cannot win. Their last victory was a 2-0 win over Huddersfield which coincided with Lambert’s first game in charge but since then the club has returned to its pre Lambert form with four draws and three wins in the last seven.
The defeat to Everton, who have been in indifferent form under Sam Allardyce for most of the season highlighted the issues that Lambert is battling against – starting well in the first twenty minutes before losing concentration and capitulating at the back. Midfielder Charlie Adam’s dismissal was cited as a turning point in this match but in truth Stoke’s problems started before he walked. Much was expected of Stoke this year after they spent heavily in the summer with previous boss Hughes bringing in defenders Kevin Wimmer, Kurt Zouma (albeit on loan), Bruno Martins Indi and Mortiz Bauer as well as defensive midfielders Darren Fletcher and Badou Ndiaye plus the extravagant Jese from PSG who was supposed to take Stoke to the next level. None with the exception of perhaps Fletcher and Bauer to a lesser degree have worked as Stoke huffed and puffed through most games until Hughes eventually was dismissed.
The only thing keeping Stoke off of the bottom of the table is the poorer form of West Brom. On field inefficiencies and off field high jinks have left baggies fans deflated and facing their first relegation from the Premier League in eight years. Three wins all season and ten points behind West Ham with seven games to go, it will take a miracle now for West Brom to avoid the drop. Manager Alan Pardew who arrived in November to replace Tony Pulis has been unable to turn around their fortunes and in particular solve the clubs goalscoring problem with their lead strikers Jay Rodriguez and Salomon Rondon only finding the net five times each in the league this season. Like Stoke, West Brom spend well in the summer with hefty layouts for Rodriguez, young Scottish winger Oliver Burke, former Arsenal full back Kieran Gibbs and Egyptian Ahmed Hegazy but the team has failed to deliver when it mattered most.
For Pardew it has been a disappointing spell in charge that was summed up by two incidents during his short tenure. The first was the behaviour of four senior players including club captain Jonny Evans and Gareth Barry during a winter training break to Portugal. The trip was meant to bring the players collectively together and focus their minds on the task of surviving but instead it turned into an unwanted media circus as the two fore-mentioned players plus Jake Livermore and Boaz Myhill stole a taxi cab and were arrested by the police as a result. All four were suspended by the club but eventually brought back into the fold fairly swiftly by Pardew as he had little alternative given the predicament the club has found itself in and the need for experienced players at this time. Not Pardew’s finest hour but you can forgive him given his lack of other option. The second incident involved the arrival of Daniel Sturridge from Liverpool on loan during the transfer window. Signed as a fix for West Brom’s lack of potency upfront, Sturridge has only made three appearances, collectively managing 78 minutes in total and no goals. Oh and he has been injured since mid February after pulling his hamstring three minutes into their game with Chelsea.
Both clubs face difficult run ins in their remaining fixtures with Stoke facing Arsenal, Spurs and in form Liverpool whilst West Brom face Man Utd, Liverpool and Spurs. Both clubs also face sides just above them in the table including Newcastle, Swansea, West Ham and Crystal Palace but those games could prove trickier to navigate especially as they too are fighting tooth and nail to remain in the division. They say that hope springs eternal but for Stoke and West Brom fans that hope is slowly slipping away and being replaced with the realism that Championship football likely awaits them next season.